Category: Dissecting Morningside Heights

Uris Hall. Photo courtesy of Souren Papazian.

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Protesters at the opening of Uris Hall. Photo courtesy of WikiCU.

On the day Uris Hall was completed, students at the School of Architecture came out with signs that read “No More Mudds” and “No More Uglies,” and claimed that if they were to design something like Uris, they would fail their classes. The fact that Uris is a desecration of the McKim & White Beaux-Arts campus is, perhaps, the only consensus that Columbia students have ever arrived to. Although we may be used to Uris being there, it is important to take another look at it not so much to criticize it, but more so to understand the implications behind its history and its future trajectories.

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University Hall. Rogers’ project section and plan. Images courtesy of WikiCU.

Of course, the boxy structure was not always the plan for the central piece of the Northern part of the campus.  The original plan of the campus included University Hall, a horseshoe-like building that looked similar to the red-brick structures surrounding it. Due to a lack of funds, only the first floor of that building was completed in 1900. In 1927, Low was still overfilled with books, so a librarian proposed to expand it to the site of University Hall, and architect James Rogers produced drawings for the project. The project was massive, almost the size of St. John the Divine in plan, and, obviously was not built.

Instead of the library project monstrous in its massiveness, the university decided to build Uris Hall, monstrous in its brutal ugliness. When in 1959 the Business School received the permission to build on the site, University Hall was demolished. The only “legacy” of the U-shape of the original building is the circular library on the ground floor. The history of Uris Hall makes one wonder why Columbia settled on what some describe as a huge air-conditioning unit as the suitable design for the site. Well, the project was made possible by a generous donation of $2.5 million from the megabuilder Uris Corporation, under the condition that Uris Corporation itself would oversee the design process. That resulted in “an ugly box that was devised to be cheap and quick to erect, featuring a hideous glass curtain wall and mill finish aluminum as its exterior,” as described in Everything by Design: My Life as an Architect by Alan Lapidus, who was a student at the School of Architecture during the building’s construction and completion.

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Left: Uris Hall. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. Right: Low Library. Photo courtesy of Columbia University.

Uris Hall claims to be a continuation of the original campus, geometrically referencing Low Library. Uris, especially with the 1984 addition of a front lobby, is similar to Low in size, its steps leading to the entry reference Low Steps, its vertical elements reference Low’s columns, concrete matches Low in color, and the plan of Uris is sort of a deconstructed version of Low’s Greek cross plan with a circular dome. However, the failure of this design is that it replaces Low’s majesty and elegance with aggressiveness. Lapidus remembers the day of Uris’ opening: “Watching from our fourth floor studio windows as the powerful, the great, and the near-great and the near-powerful assembled to honor and glorify the despoliation of a classic campus design – crass commercialism disguised as largesse – all of us architect hopefuls were filled with disgust.” McKim & White’s plan of the campus is not a frozen moment in time – it was designed as framework for interpretation and negotiation, as proven by various other buildings on campus, from Butler to NoCo, that were not a part of the original plan but became a harmonious part of it.  Uris does not fit in not because it is more contemporary than its neighbors are, not because of its brutalist aesthetic, not because it doesn’t reference the old campus enough, but because it is a manifestation of commercialistic cockiness on the otherwise elegant campus.

Now that the Business School is looking forward to its relocation to the Manhattanville campus, President Bollinger promised the building to the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, which comprises five of Columbia’s schools, including CC, GS, and GSAS. Bollinger’s vision is to make Arts & Sciences the focus of the Morningside Heights campus. As much as Uris is an architectural stain on Columbia’s campus, it is revealing of the university’s politics, especially in the 1950s-1960s. These decades are exemplified by the school’s projects and decisions that were at best mediocre (e.g. Uris,) at worst scary and discriminatory (e.g. Morningside Park gymnasium a.k.a. “Gym Crow”) from architectural, social, and political points of view. Uris could not reign in its ugliness because its ugliness goes beyond its boxiness. In this context, giving the space of Uris to the Arts & Sciences, whose mission is to “advance the pursuit of learning and communicate that intellectual and moral heritage to successive generations of students,” will potentially create interesting dynamics on campus.

As an Architecture major at Columbia, I spend most of my days in or around the Diana Center on Barnard’s campus. The center was designed by architects Weiss/Manfredi and built in 2010, replacing the intimidating McIntosh Center. There has been a lot of discussion going on either praising the building or questioning whether its luminous, orange exterior is a harmonious completion to Barnard’s campus. Instead of focusing on mere aesthetics of it, I want to examine the main two features of the Diana Center, from both programmatic and visual points of view. According to Weiss/Manfredi, the center “establishes a new nexus for social, cultural, and intellectual life at Barnard College” by connecting different disciplines and activities housed in the building through spatial elements. Those elements are ascending double-height glass atria on the East side of the building and a glazed staircase integrated into the West façade.  

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Photo courtesy of Weiss/Manfredi

The connected voids of 3 double-height atria link together different uses of the center: the lowest atrium is occupied by a dining space or informal communication space, the second atrium is intended for a study area, while the last one, spanning 4th and 5th floors, is a gallery space for exhibitions and presentations. The glass walls of the atria provide visibility between them; standing in the gallery on the 4th floor, you can see clearly all the way down to the café on the first level. This connectivity of spaces is intended to link the academic, social, and recreational usages of the building. The diagonal axis of these voids is also readable from the outside. Facing Barnard’s campus from Broadway, you can discern the three connected spaces – especially at night, when they are illuminated from the inside. This play with the transparency and luminosity of the façade elegantly opens the space to the outside community; you can guess what activities are taking place in the center without stepping foot on Barnard’s campus.

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Photo courtesy of Weiss/Manfredi

However, the connection between these spaces ends at the visibility. There is no literal connection between the atria – to get from one to another, you need to step out of them and take an elevator or a staircase at the opposite site of the building. The transparent walls of the atria allows for a glimpse, but not for an interaction, between the spaces.

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Photo courtesy of Weiss/Manfredi

Similarly, the glass-covered staircase situated along the West side of the building is a beautiful space from both the inside and the outside that brings a lot of natural light into the building, but it does not necessarily encourage connections or serve as a nexus of different disciplines, activities, and people at Diana. The transparent glass allows for complete visibility of the campus from the staircase. The protrusion of the staircase on the West façade also fits in with the surrounding campus. If you look at the building from the outside, it creates a zigzag together with the descending landscape that connects the lower level of the campus with the rest of it.

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Photo courtesy of Weiss/Manfredi

However, an interaction between the staircase and the rooms or hallways of the interior barely happens. The staircase is separated from the active space of the each floor by series of doors and non-transparent walls. Again, it only offers glimpses of the actual activities happening inside the center, rather than “eliminate[s] visual boundaries between the College and the city” (Weiss/Manfredi.) Moreover, the staircase is barely utilized as intended. It is not used to get from one floor to another, since it provides long and inefficient routes between floors. Occupants of the building actually resort to using the elevator or a more conventional staircase at the very end of the building. More often, you will find unexpected scenarios happening in the glazed space of the staircase: someone eating pizza on the floor, a group of people rehearsing their show or presentation, or someone (usually, me) napping on the stairs. It is a place where you  shortly hide to distance yourself from the business of the center or distractions of the outdoors. The staircase is not an elimination of boundaries, but rather an intermediate space, or a neutral territory, between the interior and the exterior. This, however, does not mean that the space is not successful. Personally, I find it one of the most beautiful places on campus, and a great quiet hide-away spot. It is this misuse of the space that makes it interesting and unique.

The Diana Center brings together different disciplines and activities and connects them through spatial elements of the building. Even though those spaces do not encourage interaction between those activities, they are still successful. In architecture, more often than not, some spaces are not used the way they were intended to be. However, that is not necessarily an indication of poor design decision or an example of “bad architecture.” Sometimes, the misuse of a space is the best use of it, and the Diana Center is an interesting example of that.

North West Corner Building, West façade. Photo courtesy of Michael Moran Studio.

When I first arrived at Columbia, my first assignment for Art Hum was to read a New York Times article which praised the Northwest Corner building, designed by the famous Spanish architect José Rafael Moneo. Columbia certainly takes pride in this “bridge between university’s past and future,” bragging about NoCo’s literal and symbolic role of connecting Columbia’s different buildings and departments in news articles and campus tours. It can be argued that the new building is a harmonic completion of Columbia’s Morningside campus, but it isn’t perfect. Moneo does an incredible job of subtly referencing the styles of the older buildings on campus, while staying true to NoCo’s modern aesthetic ideal. However, NoCo does not live up to its promise of accessibility for the members of the West Harlem community that this building peers down upon, and it does not accomplish its goal of being structurally innovative.

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North West Corner Building, West façade. Photo courtesy of Michael Moran Studio.

Campus residents often criticize NoCo for not “fitting” into the Roman-style campus, but a closer look at the building reveals the ingenious ways Moneo references the classical style of the older buildings on campus. He translates the façades of the original campus into a contemporary one through use of color and geometry. The rose-colored granite at the bottom matches the dark brick of the surrounding buildings. The green color of oxidized copper is found in both the glass elements of NoCo’s façade and the windows and roofs of the adjacent buildings. The white grid of NoCo mimics the way the white stone elements, such as columns and window frames, define the geometry of the old buildings. I find this approach of connecting the building to its surroundings through colors and geometric patterns by far much better than, for example, Lerner’s representational referencing of certain elements of older buildings, such as columns or brickwork.

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North West Corner Building, East façade. Photo courtesy of Michael Moran Studio.

Even though NoCo does bridge the divide between the classical and the modern aesthetics, it does not “bridge the divide between the insular world of the campus and the community beyond its walls,” like the NYT article claims. Yes, the façade facing the street is transparent at the level of the library and the café, and the building’s entrance on 120th Street offers an easy access to campus from the street. But compare the façade facing the street and the façade facing the campus. The difference in transparency is very clear. While the east side of the building looks open, the west side looks more like a fortress. While the café, the labs, and the offices offer an amazing view of the neighborhood, this does not “bridge” the campus and the neighborhood – it is actually rather representative of Columbia’s imposing and voyeuristic relationship with West Harlem.  

Another aspect of NoCo that is important to note is how it is engineered—poorly. The structural engineers of the project, Ove Arup & Partners Consulting Engineers, describe their design decision as “random structure generator.” They claim that this approach is “a major subject of study in math and science,” but any structural engineer would say that this is a bad decision. The grid structure of tall buildings such as NoCo is normally reinforced by diagonal structural elements. This method is called x-bracing. In x-bracing, it is key to bring one structural element to an intersection with a one perpendicular to it. Otherwise, the diagonal elements create tension in the structure. A great example of proper x-bracing is the Hancock Tower in Chicago:

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Hancock Tower, during construction and completed. Photos courtesy of Ezra Stoller.

Compare this to the “random x-bracing” of NoCo:

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North West Corner Building’s structure. Image courtesy of Arup.

The diagonal structural elements of NoCo are reflected in the façade, so it is very clear that those elements often end abruptly in the middle of the building. From an engineering point of view, this is horrible and ends up requiring much more material to make the structure completely stable (which in turn increases the cost of construction.)

While the Northwest Corner building is one of the best works of architecture on Columbia’s campus, it claims to accomplish many things that it doesn’t. It is not structurally innovative – rather, it is structurally inefficient. It is not Columbia’s new gate into West Harlem that addresses the university’s relationship with the surrounding neighborhood in a new light – rather, it reaffirms the existing tense relationship. Most of the conversations about this building on campus revolve around the aesthetics of it, which, to me, is a matter of personal taste. What we really should be talking about is the building’s structural, spatial, and representational woes that have much more impact on university’s life than the shade of pink of the granite on the façade.

Zhanna’s column, Dissecting Morningside Heights, runs alternate Thursdays. To contact the author or to submit a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com

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